Will face-to-face canvassing work for your charity?

publication date: Nov 30, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski
Though the Globe and Mail wrote recently of the "growing army of street canvassers, or face-to-face fundraisers," most Canadian charities are taking a "wait and see" approach to the channel that's proven so effective for entry-level donations in Europe.

The term includes not just street canvassing, but door-to-door and mall canvassing as well. "Today, face-to-face is the most cost-effective fundraising channel for signing up large numbers of monthly donors," asserts Bryan McKinnon, VP of Public Outreach Fundraising, a Toronto canvassing firm.

The payback comes not from the initial gift, which may be modest, but with the cumulative value of years of monthly giving - the real goal of F2F.

A Canadian success story

Rebecca Davies of Médecins Sans Frontières lauds the impact of F2F fundraising on her organization. "This year alone, $5 million has gone right to the field because of conversations people have had with street or door-to-door canvassing. I want people to know that we couldn't have raised that $5 million otherwise."

Davies readily allows that the worldwide agency's successful European experiences helped convince her board to launch the tactic in 2002. It works for MSF, she believes, because people recognize the charity's name and understand its mission.

Making it work for you

Consider the pros and cons, she counsels, just as you would for any other fundraising initiative. Make sure the firm adheres to the ethical codes of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and Imagine Canada, and in particular that they don't pay commissions, which both organizations prohibit. (Bonuses are another matter - AFP specifically approves them, while Imagine Canada does not specifically disallow them.) Set goals, and hold both yourselves and your supplier accountable for meeting them. Motivate the canvassers with visits to your site, presentations at their site, and messages from the field. And above all, make donor retention a priority.

AFP chair Andrea McManus of Calgary concurs with Davies' points. "If you're going to make the investment, you can't do it as a one-off," she states. "Have a plan to monitor and address attrition, as you would in every other channel."

F2F is very much in its infancy in Canada, though there's a huge body of knowledge in some other countries, she continues. "We need to build on that in a way that fits the various cultures in Canada."

Cathy Barr of Imagine Canada emphasizes the need to build donor relationships and avoid short-term thinking. That's why both organizations prohibit commissions. "The concern is that commission-based fundraising is more likely than other types of compensation to lead to excessive private benefit," she explains.

Public reactions

As far as Barr and McManus know, there's no research on Canadians' attitude towards F2F fundraising. But the online comments on the Globe's article are strongly negative, even contemptuous, offset by some persistent supporters including one who identified himself as a former canvasser for Public Outreach.

Of all the posts, perhaps this one is most telling:

We live in an antisocial society where people are afraid to talk to each other, so it's natural that the public feels a bit uncomfortable being approached. However, it is funny that people aren't embarrassed to publicly admit on this forum their contempt for people raising money to save lives. People spend $5 on a drink from Starbucks and don't think twice. Why is being asked to help save a life so bad?

For more information, bryan@publicoutreachgroup.com; rdavies@msf.ca.

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